L'origine du mot foule

Robert Filliou


Mixed Media, 30 x 30 cm.
Materials: dry point on copper

Collection: Collection Bruno van Lierde, Brussels.

Fragment of the conversation between Robert Filliou (RF) and Irmeline Lebeer (IL), Flayosc, France, August 1976.

IL: What’s psychophrene?

RF: Double personality. No, not double: split. I believe the Germans have analysed it better than anyone. If you want to understand, for example, what’s wrong with the United Sates, it’s better to read the novels of Faulkner, Hemmingway, Dos Passos, etc., rather than listening to what someone tells you who’s been there two weeks or who was a soldier against them. The same with the French, the Germans. It’s better to ask them what they think about it. Just read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Things like that. They know it well. Everything I say has been analysed so much better by them.

IL: But it’s difficult to say: this is Man.

RF: Man is like that, of course. Man is universal. With some people it can be more pronounced but I’m not sure, I think it depends on the period. The French have been a terrible warrior people.

IL: They’ve never been that torn apart.

RF: Oh la la... The French people itself… The wars of decolonisation…

IL: But maybe there’s a system of unity that form more easily. It’s easier to know who you are when you’re French…

RF: It’s difficult to be German, I understand that. We also have every kind. What I’m saying is just that we should ask the Germans themselves. They have enough universal spirit, scholars, writers and poets to tell us better than anyone. Like the English, when they speak about themselves… They’re universal spirits, at the same time in their own culture and part of global culture. They interpret their country to others. They don’t just speak well about it, on the contrary. They have a tendency to say some very, very, harsh stuff against their compatriots. It’s the collective phenomenon is the interesting thing. In Germany it’s the character of Hitler himself as the Traumaturg. There are so many interpretations. Plus the economic conditions at the time.

IL: I’ve read in a psychiatric thesis on the liberation of instincts that if you do that on a personal level, then it’s creativity, it’s blossoming, you become an artist, etc. But if you do it on a collective level, then it doesn’t work anymore, because it’s the unleashing of violence, brutality, etc.

RF: This photo we’ll reproduce: L’Origine du mot foule (The Origin of The Word Crowd). I’ve shown you the picture. A mass forms by adding people one by one but the stupidity of the mass grows 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32… There’s something else, from an intuitive point of view, but we’d be misunderstood if we said it. In a way we could say that the typical German is Hitler, and the typical Frenchman is general Massu. It’s nationalism that’s bad. It’s considering ourselves in that way. This is what the Americans mean when they say 100% American. George Bernard Shaw said: ‘A 100% American is a 99% idiot.’ We can apply that to any other country. Besides, you have universal spirits in every country and the Germans have at least as many, if not more, than anyone. It’s totally different if we start comparing Hitler to Beethoven… Not only that. There’s Einstein, all the philosophers, and Hegel, who have made enormous contributions.

IL: But this kind of contempt for the masses is also something embarrassing, no?

RF: It’s embarrassing if you don’t consider yourself part of the masses. It’s very good you’re asking this, because when I speak about the masses, I very often stop to point out that I’m speaking about myself. When I say people, I talk about myself as well. When I say artists…

IL: So you also despise yourself?

RF: No, but I’ve realised that when I’m part of a crowd I can be very dangerous. I was once caught in a fire in a cinema. When people start screaming ‘Fire!’ you see their reaction. The survival instinct comes out and everyone runs to the exit. I’m terrified of crowds because of that. I never take part in street manifestations. You might be trampled if something happened. I’ve never trampled anybody, but it could have happened. Anyway, you don’t know from one moment to the other. It’s a phenomenon of fear. I don’t think it’s despising, I thing it’s being aware of the danger. Everybody knows that if you are in a crowd of people and military music is played and someone starts shooting in the air, then you’ll do it too. If they start throwing stones at the scapegoat, you’ll surprise yourself by doing it as well. That’s collective hysteria. Otherwise you’ll be trampled. These are well-covered themes that were always been known. Some people avoid this. Even if they’re communists or fascists they have mastery over themselves, and that complicates things. The Nazis had their heroes who’d sacrifice themselves to save others. It’s not a test. Crowd psychology, that’s a very different domain. But now we’re through with hate, no?

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